By now the birds that we commonly think of as neotropical migrants have passed through. Gone are most of the warblers, tanagers, thrushes and flycatchers that drew birders into the field from late August to mid-October.
There may be a few individual stragglers and a couple of late-migrating species to be found, but the transition is well underway from familiar breeding birds to familiar wintering birds.
I’ve been looking for some of the more uncommon sparrow species lately, without much success as yet. But I have come across some returning species just about every day I’ve been out.
The first true winter bird I found was a swamp sparrow in a cattail patch at a pond’s edge. Swamp sparrows are pretty easy to find in appropriate habitat but are tough to get away from wet habitats. Later the same day the first white-throated sparrow was seen. The white-throateds are one of the more abundant of our wintering sparrows.
Yellow-rumped warblers have replaced the multiple species of warblers I have enjoyed since August. The yellow-rumpeds are the most common winter warbler.
The extremely high-pitched calls of golden-crowned kinglets can be heard from pines now. The calls are so high that some birders cannot hear them at all. That makes them tougher to see; they are really tiny. Their equally small cousin the ruby-crowned kinglet is finally here as well.
House wrens are fairly common breeders in our area, but the species completely changes habitats from summer to winter. By summer they are a bird of large residential yards and gardens. During the winter they move into brushy fields. I suspect the winter birds are from more northerly populations.
Yellow-bellied sapsuckers, our only woodpecker that isn’t with us in the summer, have returned to their favorite sap trees by now. Hermit thrushes, our only winter spotted thrush, will be here soon if not already. The first sizable flocks of cedar waxwings are now being seen overhead.
I haven’t seen any winter finches yet, and I may not this year. Predictions are for a poor flight into the Southeast. The same goes for red-breasted nuthatches. They could yet come in, though. Every winter is different and is sure to hold a few surprises.
Taylor Piephoff is a naturalist with an interest in the birds and wildlife of the southern Piedmont: PiephoffT@aol.com. Check out his blog at piedmontbirding.blogspot.com.